Club Focus is a new regular feature on Football Italiano that aims to bring you up-to-date with your favourite clubs from the Peninsula. Each week we bring you the latest news, previews and commentary focused solely on an individual club. We aim to provide you with well-formed, in-depth debate on the latest events surrounding some of Serie A’s biggest clubs. This week sees the first segment of the Palermo and Roma Club Focuses.
The talk of the day is of course the match against Inter. A 3-3 draw is by any standard a satisfying result given the starting circumstances, but it is tinged with regret on account of the two-goal advantage held twice over the course of the game. The polemics over the penalty did the rest.
The general consensus, from what this writer can discern, is that the team played very well in the first half before losing steam in the second. On this account, the match has been called encouraging (among other things in light of the return leg against Arsenal). Unfortunately, the good game shown against Inter was mostly a chimera – for the most part, the team’s structural weaknesses were laid bare rather than solved by Sunday’s game. If this is how Roma plans on playing against Arsenal, then there is much to worry about.
I have been calling this year’s Roma a toothless lion for a while now (specifically, since the Roma-Milan preview in January, which contended that both teams were floats of good game hiding a crisis, and the Rossoneri’s late performances seem to confirm the old reading). Looking at the game against Inter, my opinion has hardly been modified. Yes, Roma did dominate for the first half, and yes, they did score three goals at the San Siro. But what kind of domination did we witness, and how did the goals come about? Just as importantly, what is the defensive condition of the team, and how does it reflect on the performance overall?
One problem that this squad has faced since last summer’s departures of Amantino Mancini and Ludovic Giuly has been the absence of players capable of operating on the wings. Rodrigo Taddei can not do all the work on his own, and Mirko Vucinic and Jérémy Menez (while excellent players in their own right) are not wingers by disposition. The fact that a football team – especially one the level of Roma – should have no wingers in its roster is a sign of tremendous ill health. Imagine Inter playing with no central defenders or Juventus having no fullbacks – the very idea is ludicrous. Granted, this can be compensated for if there is a tactical vision which deploys the team deliberately without lateral players, but that is not the case in Roma. The 4-3-1-2 was the outcome and not the cause of this situation, and it is still a rather dire formation in terms of how it operates on the pitch.
More to the point, the 4-3-1-2 is supposed to use an offensive midfielder to build bridges between midfield and offence, but Roma’s lack of creativity in the three central midfielders (Daniele De Rossi being the only one who boasts real class alongside the raw muscle) means that the two sections of the team operate mostly inorganically. The game against Inter supports this thesis to a fault. The first two goals came by means of a cross by a fullback headed in by a midfielder, and a cross by a midfielder bounced in by a fullback. It took almost one full hour before the striking duo of Julio Baptista and Vucinic had any influence on the offensive game, and even then it had to be Matteo Brighi to run up and boot it in. Compare this with Inter’s goals, which came about as a result of the team constructing the game in such a way that the offence was allowed to finalise. In other words, their offence was playing like an offence. That of the Giallorossi seemed cosmetic at best.
Sure, Roma was holding possession. But they were not really creating anything with it – again, almost the entire first half was spent without either of the strikers (or anyone else) actually sending a shot towards Julio Cesar. There is nothing ‘positive’ or ‘encouraging’ in the fact that Roma held possession against Inter at the San Siro – possession is not an end in itself, but a means towards feeding the strikers and/or defensive play. Roma’s holding of the ball achieved neither.
If all of this sounds bad, then brace yourself – the list goes on. The team lacks strategic flexibility. When Inter found itself two goals down, the Nerazzurri started pushing forward with everything they had – the logical thing to do, but also a very dangerous one, since it leaves one exposed to the inevitable counter-attacks. In these conditions, it is astonishing how little Roma managed to exploit the open spaces left by Inter. On the one time when they (clumsily) organised a counter, it resulted in the third goal. For the rest, they just sat back and let Inter play their game. With these premises, they can hardly complain if they yield the draw.
Then there is the psychological condition of the team, which is still frightful. They spent the first half fighting like lions, as is their custom, and the second half submitting like kittens, also as custom. This is a problem that has been plaguing Roma for three years now, and its resolution seems as remote as ever. With such an erratic performance before our eyes, what kind of hope does this offer for the future? Roma was fantastic against Genoa too, then they were steamrolled by Atalanta. If the form shown against Inter in the first half gave any sign of being a constant, I would agree that it would make for promising news. As it stands, what guarantee does it offer that Roma will not revert to lethargic game by the time they come up against Udinese?
Speaking of Udinese (a team whose crisis since the turn of the year makes Roma’s situation look like a festive parade), one may wonder how to face the Zebrette on account of all that has been said above. The answer is, oddly, without changing a thing, and in exactly the same way as the Giallorossi faced Inter. Roma’s problems are so deep that a true resolution will have to wait until next season. For now, the best that Spalletti can do is damage limitation. Furthermore Udinese play with a three-man midfield who suffers from a magnified version of Roma’s midfield-offence divorce, so if there is one team that is bound to be vulnerable to Roma’s game of (mostly sterile) possession, that is going to be Udinese.
We shall have space to further flesh out the aspects of the Roma crisis as well as the potential ways to solve it in the coming weeks. For the moment, it will suffice to say that even if Roma had taken home the victory against Inter, it would have stood as a very weak sign in terms of foreseeing the team’s rebirth. Most of the success against Inter came about as the result of a very peculiar psychological situation – Roma’s players were in search of identity and resurrection after Arsenal, and Inter’s were mentally exhausted after the sheer pressure of the game against Manchester United. This particular combination led to enough amnesia in the Nerazzurri midfield and distractions in their defence that they conceded two goals while creating nothing. When they finally did wake up, it was Roma’s turn to fail to take advantage of the situation by exploiting the open spaces – instead, they gave in to their psychological nervousness. The game was atypical and there is very little to be learnt from it. It certainly serves as no omen for either of the teams’ return legs in the Champions League.
A note in closure. I mentioned in my preview of the Inter–Roma tactics that a duel which deserved to be kept an eye on was that between Marco Motta and Davide Santon. The contest did not disappoint. Both fullbacks were fantastic running down their respective wings, and watching them as they clashed against each other on the two ends of the pitch was a sight for sore eyes (in this writer’s opinion, it was the best thing that the match produced). Motta arguably came out on top – the cross for the first goal came from him, and it came after a show of skill the victim of which happened to be precisely Santon. It goes without saying that the two youngsters will have to keep up their performances from here until the end of the season and beyond, but if they do, then there is no reason in the world why we should not see them at the 2010 World Cup in the Azzurri shirt. The current fullbacks are old and a generational exchange is very much needed. If the Inter-Roma match is anything to go by, the prospect of such an exchange looks rosy.